Christ in the House of His Parents (1850)

& its role in the dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (but mostly just me hyping up the painting)

(Forgive me for this first part, I've been stuck on it for weeks trying to derive how I can get through it without sounding like I'm parroting a Wikipedia article and have ultimately decided that I can't.)

"In 1848 the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was founded by John Everett Millais, Dante and William Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt in the home of Millais' parents. Thus began an artistic and poetic movement which sought to foster a link between the Naturalists' dedication to realism in their work and the ideals of Romanticism - to ground the lofty, glorious aesthetics and subject matter archetypal of the Medieval period in some of the canon, rational, and more 'true-to-life' style characteristics of Realism. The Pre-Raphaelites notably had a great admiration for the rich and vibrant colors of Quattrocentro art, a clear departure from the dire, brooding palette of other English artists of the period which often appeared muddied and dull due to an overzealous use of... asphalt-pigmented paints, also known as bitumen. (Asphalt. Like, from the ground.)"

(Ugh, now that you've got your little nugget of background info & that clusterfuck's out of the way... what's art history without a little controversy? Hold on, we're getting there.)

In 1850 Millais completed and subsequently exhibited a work so heavily criticised it quickly gained much of its notoriety through infamy: "Christ in the House of His Parents".

This work, I believe, exhibits the paragon of ideals that our short-lived Brotherhood stood for. Its mastery of photorealism in oil on canvas excellently demonstrates the movement's dedication to Nature whilst still preserving the dreamlike, Romantic quality which makes so much Pre-Raphaelite art appear downright enchanting.

Millais' painting can be seen to exhibit gorgeous realism and attention to detail, depicting the family of Christ in a very humanising, down-to-earth manner that was seldom explored in other religious paintings of the era. Contemporary sacred art often lacked dimension, both literally and figuratively, and could be considered quite 'flat' in both its seemingly two-dimensional style and static moral depictions of religious figures. (On the 'two-dimensional' note, just a bit of a personal grievance: the facial proportioning on some of this stuff really leaves something to be desired. The fuckers look more like a holy pancake than anything.)

Aside from his vibrant character composition that already set Christ in the House of His Parents apart from a vast majority of other religious works, it was Millais' indiscriminate, fine attention to detail and his staunch refusal to waver from the mimesis of Nature that ultimately upset the public so. You'll notice that from a technical standpoint no part of the scene depicted had been treated as any more or less important than another. The same hand and brush which finely sculpted each hair on the child Jesus' head carved each delicate wood curl strewn about the ground, painted the fine grains and even the dust smeared along the table.

(A writer in the 09 May 1850 edition of the London Times, whose name I have been unable to locate thus far, believed the piece to be "with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness". To each their own, I guess. But to this guy, maybe a dash of cyanide in his coffee.)

What I find truly remarkable about this piece is that it manages to humanise Christ in a way that a very small minority of sacred art aside from the scripture itself manages to do. If one were to take away the painting's title and disregard all knowledge of the Bible, this piece could simple be read as this: a young boy and his family in a dusty carpenter's shop. Though the son of God, in that moment, he could be anyone. One could argue that this notion of not elevating and honoring the subject matter defeats the inherent purpose of the work being a religious painting to begin with... and, boy, did people argue. Critics seemed to proclaim that to humanise Christ, to equate the son of God to that of Man, is to blasphemise Him.

Personally, though, I do think Millais' work here honors Christ in a way that traditionally reverent religious works are unable to: the more 'down-to-earth' take here makes the work much more relatable and resonant with the average, non-aristocratic, maybe a little secular (maybe a lot secular, if we're feeling particularly scandalous) viewer. Of course, this theoretical audience that I speak of now is, to say the least, a far cry from that which would have been seeing this painting upon its first exhibit back in 1850. The art world and how society as a whole interacts with art has changed drastically in the past 150-odd years; for one, becoming exponentially more accessible to just about any pleb with an internet-capable device in range of McDonald's WiFi.

Historically, those making the effort to tour museums and showcases and to be among the first to see and critique new artworks at this time were more along the lines of upper-class, and their reason for upset becomes clear when we take into account that this painting really challenged the very socioeconomic values that lent them their comfort and security in life, wealth and social status.

There is of course, the unconventional take on the religious element which I have previously discussed, but this painting also expresses a dissatisfaction with the societal beauty standard and its contribution to class and gender biases at the time.

I would like to direct your attention to the woman in blue at the focal point of this painting, the Virgin Mary. For each of the portraitures featured in this painting Millais specifically used the faces of friends and family as opposed to the likenesses of professional models; part of his effort to remain true to Nature and the reality of what a carpenter's family would look like after having lived and worked in the business for many years. In this painting the visage of Mary was modeled after Millais' sister-in-law. She was by no means a particularly repulsive nor gorgeous woman (though Charles Dickens begged to differ, saying she was "...so hideous in her ugliness that ... she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin-shop in England"), she was simply... human. Motherly. She could have been anyone but that day she was the Virgin Mary. Herein lies what I find to be the most beautiful part of this painting, and therein lies the very fault which critics all but tore the piece to shreds over: the humanity of it.

Ralph Wornum of the publication Art Journal believed that "the physical ideal alone can harmonize with the spiritual ideal: in Art, whatever it may be in Nature in its present condition, the most beautiful soul must have the most beautiful body." In short: Holy Mother Mary must be portrayed by none other than a model whose physical beauty parallels that of the spirit of her character. The sentiment brings to light how fundamental gender biases and contemporary beauty standards were in maintaining part of the societal hierarchy at the time. (The age-old adage, "sexy equals good"). Wornum's belief categorically excludes a majority of the population who fail to meet and uphold contemporary standards of beauty from the privileges afforded to those who do. Some folks' sentiments on 'beauty culture' honestly aren't all that different today, though there is far more open critique on it now than there had been in the 1800s.

The massive influx of negative press coverage on the Brotherhood following Millais' little scandal here ultimately brought about its downfall. Its former members, now wishing to distance themselves from the controversial namesake ceased including the Brotherhood's indicator in their work, the initials P.R.B. marked alongside their personal signature. Many artists, however, continued to produce works that were clearly influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, though they now lacked the P.R.B makers' mark.

As abruptly as the Brotherhood began during a single meeting in Millais' parents' house in 1848, so too did the group meet its untimely end, having virtually dissolved by the year 1853, a mere half-decade after its conception. The impact of the Brotherhood on the art world far outlived the group itself and its unceremonious dissolution, giving way to the longer-lived Pre-Raphaelite Movement.